Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘brainstorming

The power of intentional randomness

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I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.

Gregory Bateson, quoted in The Whole Earth Catalog

Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.

At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.

For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.

More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.

This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.

If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.

Mind maps as a writing tool

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Mind maps—that is, informal diagrams with different words, phrases, or images clustered around a single central idea—are such a useful tool for writers and creative artists that they’ve become something of a cottage industry. I’ve been doing them for ten years, and never start a writing project without one. For Kamera, I probably generated upwards of 150 different maps, while a novelette or short story might have five or ten.

It isn’t hard to see why mind maps work. Since they’re loosely organized, with hierarchy giving way to a random flow of ideas, they’re naturally suited to loose, right-brained thinking. The process of writing with a pen slows down the rational left brain so that the right hemisphere can catch up. And, perhaps most crucially, a mind map provides a record of what might otherwise have been an unstructured brainstorming session. (Even the best idea in the world is no good unless it is promptly written down.)

I’m not going to go into the specifics of how to create a mind map, since the process is different for everyone, and there’s plenty of instruction available online. For creative writers in particular, my advice is to do mind maps in three stages: one or more large mind maps for the overall plot, one for each important character, and one for each major section—for example, the three acts of a screenplay. My own preference is to also do one for each chapter, with additional ones for large set pieces, but this is a matter of taste.

Mind maps can be done on paper of any size, but I’ve found that larger is better, especially when you’re laying out the first outlines of a short story or novel. Later on, as you begin to drill down to individual scenes and characters, smaller pieces of paper may be easier to manage. Here, for example, is a view of the notebook pages that I used to brainstorm character details for “The Last Resort,” a novelette that appeared in the August 2009 issue of Analog Science Fiction and Fact:

And here are the initial mind maps I made for “Kawataro,” a novelette scheduled to appear in Analog sometime next year:

A number of software programs exist for generating mind maps, but I’ve found that pen and paper is by far the best way. The physical act of writing tends to slow down my thoughts, forcing me to consider each word as I write it, until it seems as if the pen is doing the thinking. (This forced slowness is an advantage that we lose when typing, especially in Microsoft Word.)

As powerful as mind maps are in themselves, they’re even more useful when paired with what I like to call intentional randomness. I’ll be talking more about this tomorrow.

Written by nevalalee

December 13, 2010 at 8:41 am

Where do ideas come from?

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For most people, this is an interesting, if abstract, question. For a writer, it can be a matter of life and death. One of the first things you learn as a working novelist is that you can’t depend solely on blind inspiration: a great idea comes uninvited maybe a couple of times a year, while a novel requires hundreds of great, or at least good, ideas. All writers eventually develop a set of tricks for turning the unpredictable workings of inspiration into something marginally more reliable. Over the next few days, I’m going to talk about some of the tricks that work for me.

The problem of generating good ideas on a regular basis, while challenging for anyone, is especially pronounced for a novelist, whose job requires qualities of personality that don’t always lend themselves to inspiration. A successful novelist has to be a bit of a drudge. Writing a novel is hard, fairly tedious work, with a lot of bookkeeping involved. It demands organization, planning, and the ability to sit at a desk for six or more hours a day. In short, it’s a left-brained activity. But the right brain is where ideas come from. And anyone who wants to write more than one publishable novel has to find ways of coaxing the right brain to life on a regular basis.

Colin Wilson, in his essay “Fantasy and Faculty X” (available in this book), describes the problem in a useful way:

…The right and left hemispheres operate at different speeds: the right is low, the left is fast. And this explains why they are out of contact much of the time. They are like two men going for a walk, and one walks so much faster than the other that he is soon a hundred yards in front, and conversation is practically impossible…

There are two basic methods for reestablishing contact between the two selves. One is to soothe yourself into a deep state of relaxation, so the left slows down. The other is to stimulate yourself into a state of intense excitement—the younger generation does it with loud music and strobe lights—so the right begins to move faster. Both these techniques have the same effect; the two halves are like two trains running on parallel tracks at exactly the same speed, so the passengers can lean out of the windows and talk.

Obviously, it’s hard to write to loud music and strobe lights, however fun it might be to try. But the opposite approach, that of slowing the left brain down, is more practical. Writers have used various techniques to accomplish this, ranging from self-hypnosis (which John Gardner describes in On Becoming a Novelist) to, more dangerously, alcohol and drugs. As I’m going to discuss this week, I’ve found two techniques to be especially useful: mind maps and intentional randomness.

Written by nevalalee

December 12, 2010 at 8:15 am

How to write like a Vulcan

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So you’ve decided to write a novel, but aren’t quite sure what the story should be. What do you do now? My advice: Make a list of things you like. Most works of narrative, after all, begin as nothing more impressive than a list of ideas. And I know of no better example than the one given by Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

Meyer’s life is a fascinating one: he wrote the bestselling Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Seven-Per-Cent Solution while still in his twenties, had a productive career as a director and screenwriter, but remains best known as the man who saved Star Trek. After the underwhelming response to Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Meyer was brought on board to cut costs and instill a badly missed sense of adventure into the proceedings. And he did. When you saw the first Star Trek film, you wanted to become a special effects designer; when you saw Wrath of Khan, you wanted to join Starfleet. (At least that’s how it worked for me. And I’m not even that big of a Star Trek fan.)

By the time Meyer joined the production, the sequel had long been stranded in development hell, and no less than five separate scripts had been written. Because of a fixed release date, he found himself in the unenviable position of having to write a filmable screenplay in twelve days. So what did he do? Here’s the story he tells in his breezy memoir, The View from the Bridge:

“Well, here’s my other idea,” I told them, taking a deep breath and producing a yellow legal pad from under my chair. “Why don’t we make a list of everything we like in these five drafts? Could be a plot, a subplot, a sequence, a scene, a character, a line even…”


“And then I will write a new script and cobble together all the things we choose.”

…We then made the list. It included…Khan (from the “Space Seed” episode…); the Genesis Project (creating planetary life); Kirk meeting his son; Lieutenant Saavik (Spock’s beautiful Vulan protégée); the death of Spock; and the simulator sequence…All these materials were culled higgledy-piggledy from the five different drafts that I never—to the best of my recollection—consulted again.

And while it’s unlikely that you’ll be collating the plot of your novel from five different drafts, the underlying principle is the same. For a writer in the early stages of a project, lists are incredibly useful. As Meyer notes, they can include anything from a major plot point to a character to a line of dialogue. And once you’ve got your list in hand, you’re well on your way to starting your novel.

One last point: Meyer’s great virtue, aside from his skill and intelligence, was his objectivity. He wasn’t a Star Trek fan; he had never watched the series; and even today, he seems rather bewildered by the show’s popularity. But his sense of distance was what allowed him, crucially, to cull good ideas from bad, and to see what elements of the show were no longer working. As difficult as it may be, every writer should strive to cultivate that same objectivity toward his or her own work. Passion, of course, is important as well—but only when paired with a Vulcan detachment.

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